#291 from Innovative
Leader Volume 6, Number 8
Someone Driving You Up the Wall?
Crow is executive director of the Lorain County Children Services
in Elyria, Ohio (phone 216-329-5340).
He is author of The Frustration Factor (Glenbridge Publishing, Lakewood, CO, 1995).
Many of us have a
staff member who totally drives us up the wall.
That person takes a lot of emotional energy out of you,
energy that you could use to get your work done.
These people are mostly motivated by personal needs, status
goals and insecurities. If
their private goals are compatible with your company’s, that’s
fine; if not, their selfish interests prevail.
Here are three common up-the-wall drivers and some hints at
how to address the problem.
It By The Book
to driving people up the wall is by the book.
His main play is to do things the same way he always does
them. What has worked
before is likely to work again.
He knows people seldom find fault with his handling things
in the usual way, whether it works or not.
Next, Rich always
looks at how things can go sour, but gives little thought to how
they can succeed. Whenever
he has to do something that entails risk, he spends most of his
time figuring out what to say if it goes sour.
Of course, the best thing to say is, “I was uneasy about
this, but went along reluctantly.
I handled it the same way we always handle things.”
Rich has an
explanation for failure made up ahead of time.
Another version of this is not to do anything innovative,
and to keep others from coming up with new ways of doing things.
Going On? You should understand that people like Rich have
little faith in their abilities and less faith in their basic
grasp or understanding of complex situations.
Since they don’t believe they can trust their judgments
or instincts, they don’t take any chances.
They also don’t
have much ability to anticipate or predict the behavior of others.
The idea is that they can’t assess whether a specific
action will lead to praise or punishment. Usually, they think the likely outcome will be punishment.
Should You Do? If
the only reaction Rich gets from you is negative or critical, he
will just put more energy into avoiding negative reactions.
So you should consider whether someone like Rich is
actually a product of your
But you can say,
“What do you think? Is
there a better way to do this?”
He may say “Yes” in some situations, and “No” in
others, depending on what he thinks is safest.
Whatever he says, the question is then, “Why would you go
that way?” The idea
is to walk him through the decision-making process.
In most situations, you can close with, “You seem to have
some ideas about this. Use
your best judgment.”
When he starts
taking more chances and making decisions, it’s important not to
be too negative when things don’t work out.
Avoid the temptation to second guess.
Remember, avoiding negative reactions is why he’s playing the by-the-book game. Your goal is to teach and encourage in positive and
supportive ways. The
reward for the player has to come primarily through success,
thereby increasing his judgment and initiative.
Henry walks into
the lounge and hears Doris saying, “It’s their fault, down in
that office. They
always get things screwed up.
We work our tails off and they can’t get anything
Picking up on the
assault, Greg says, “Do we ever get a thank you?
Not a chance!”
Henry joins in,
“You can say that again. It’s
about time we start putting the responsibility directly on them,
since they cause the problems.”
Greg says, “I
know people have bad days, but that’s no excuse. They have to do it right every time, including the little
professionalism we’re talking about.”
Everyone nods at the profundity.
Going On? Management and psychology texts argue that people
will do as well as they can under the specific circumstances.
They only need to accept the underlying values, understand
the problem, and receive support and encouragement.
Faultfinders like those in the lounge, don’t buy into
that. They only need
to look around at their co-workers to see the absurdity in the
“People are good and want to do the right thing,” hypothesis.
look at almost any behavior, activity or project and point out
things that should have worked out better or faster.
They can point to people who should have been smarter or
sharper. They also
call attention to events or circumstances that someone should have
handled more smoothly or efficiently.
The faultfinders always do better, they believe, so it’s
reasonable to expect others to do the same.
It may be human
nature to see faultfinders as confident people who have high
standards and a low tolerance for anything less than perfection.
The truth is that they cannot separate the important from
the unimportant, the essential from the unessential.
They can recognize when things aren’t the way they think
they’re supposed to be and are quick to point it out—to anyone
who will listen.
What they cannot
recognize is a reasonable
example of something. They
cannot tell when someone does a job well enough for the purpose. They cannot see that behavior sometimes only varies in style
or as a function of personality.
They need an exact
match with their view of how things ought to be, or they see no
match at all. And of course, there are never any mitigating circumstances.
Should You Do? If
you want to keep faultfinders from driving you up the wall,
don’t react, don’t come to the bait.
The bait is the urge to react negatively, to tell them off,
to refuse to work with them, or to resign to the inevitable while
you’re boiling inside. Instead,
make the changes that are appropriate and reasonable.
Remember that they are sometimes right, and not just
overdoing it, find honest opportunities to say supportive things
to faultfinders. Point
out things they have done especially well.
Comment when one of their skills or abilities makes things
easier for you or helps things turn out successfully.
The real issue is that they’re actually very insecure
people who are as critical with themselves as they are with
everyone else. They
need more than average amounts of approval and positive
In the short run,
relating to them in these positive ways will change the way they
behave around you. It
will have little carry-over affect on their behavior in other
situations. As the faultfinder’s behavior changes around you,
you might say, “I’m surprised people think you’re so
critical and faultfinding. You
aren’t that way around me at all.”
It’s at least worth a try, if it matters to you how he or
she behaves in other situations.
If not, just be happy that you’re not being driven up the
Rose hangs around
when others are talking, always lingers a little after meetings,
and just starts talking when people are working.
Her game is to get people talking whether or not they want
Once people are
talking, she jumps in or says something like, “I couldn’t help
hearing what you were talking about.”
Of course, she could help it.
She makes a point to hear.
Nonetheless, she now expresses her opinion.
Whatever the topic, she has an opinion.
Her opinion is
that things are a mess. She
thinks things should be handled better. Why?
Everyone—except her—is incompetent and doesn’t know
what he or she is doing. Adding,
“I’ve said this before, but….” is a master touch.
If someone asks
Rose for her opinion on something, she says, “I have some strong
opinions on this, but I want to hear your ideas first.”
Notice she is clear about her having opinions—more than
one—on the topic. No
matter what the other person says, Rose is ready.
She has managed to move back to a position from which to
react to what others are saying.
She isn’t one to let anyone get her out of position.
The thorn of Rose works best as a weapon with which to
stick someone, anyone.
Going On? Understanding the motivations of agitators isn’t
too difficult if you look at their behavior and then ask yourself
why they are behaving that way.
More to the point, what do they get out of it?
makes things seem bad, people seem incompetent, and everything
appears worse than it is. The
agitator gets attention, gets a little more power for a little
while, and is seen as someone who is in the know and on top of
Should You Do? Listen to what the agitator has to say, and
then say, “You are really something.
You can find more ways to look at things negatively than
anyone I know.” The
strategy is to call the agitator on the behavior and make it clear
that you have no interest in what he says.
There’s no power reinforcement for the behavior.
If an agitator
says something negative about someone. The classy response is, “I’m surprised to hear you say
that. I don’t think
it’s true.” The
agitator will almost always press on with, “It is true!
goes on to give some more negative things.
Your response is,
“You probably would describe the tooth fairy as a thief.”
Now comes the real trick.
No matter what the agitator says next, don’t respond.
Quietly and calmly, call them on their behavior and then let it
to be contagious. People who just enjoy small talk—almost always
about other people who aren’t there—inadvertently pick up the
it’s important to stop it as quickly and completely as possible.
Locate the most
vocal agitator and then do two things.
First, privately ask what problems he sees or what concerns
he has. If necessary,
candidly share with him what you have learned he is saying or
complaining about. Once the issues are on the table, you and he can go into a
Next, and this is
the key, tell him that his agitating behavior is unacceptable.
Let him know that you’re always available to work on
problems, but won’t tolerate agitating. He will undoubtedly act shocked and deny the behavior.
Nonetheless, make your point and don’t argue.
If necessary, and
after giving problem solving a chance, say, “This behavior must
stop. If not, I will
state at a group meeting that your destructive behavior must end. I will also caution your associates not to follow your
example.” This is
usually enough. You
must not be bluffing, though.
It may be necessary for you to follow through, especially
with dyed-in-the-wool agitators.
With these hints
at dealing with people who drive you up the wall, your job should
become not only more pleasant, but also more productive.